FARMING the MOJAVE: Joshua Tree’s Local Stewards
By T. Hammidi
Where there is dirt, there is a farmer. It’s a universal fact. But how does one grow food in arid desert climates? Which plants and scale thrive? What techniques work in the extreme weather conditions – lack of water, abundant sand, gripping winds, antelope squirrels and rabbits, flash floods, and endless sun? Joshua Tree Voice correspondent, T. Hammidi, interviewed small scale farmers and master gardeners in the Mojave Desert to discuss strategies, joys, and tools for growing food, negotiating water scarcity, and thriving in one of the harshest landscapes in North America.
JOSHUA TREE farmer/owner Christian Camargo
Sunever Farm farmer / owner Christian Camargo believes that studying the desert land and its creatures will inspire solutions to our region’s increasing water scarcity. “How does nature solve the problem?” he asked. “Nature has been around forever.” Camargo pointed my eyeline to an Eastern horizon line on his 20 acre farm, a former Asian pear orchard reconceptualized by designer Stephanie Smith in the early 2010’s as a native food oasis with multiple zones. He then pointed toward a Northern downhill slope, “Look at the plants over here, compared to over there.” The clusters of plant life shifted along the rolling mesa, telling a story about where water flowed. “It tells you everything you need to know”, Camargo said gently.
Christian Camargo, a Mexican – American descendant of 4-5 generations of storytellers and ranchers, says that his family “always had their feet in the ground.” His mother was a vaudeville actress from Mexico, his father a So Cal rancher. One might assume that this matrix of creativity explains why an accomplished Hollywood actor such as Camargo (Brian Moser in Dexter, Michael Corrigan in House of Cards and Eleazar in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Parts 1 and 2) would dive into life as a farmer. Rather, Camargo’s story is about health, beginning with his cancer journey in 2005. Then, turning to natural foods and medicinal plants to balance his system, he recognized the profound positive benefits he experienced from olive oil. “Olive oil was a strong medical food” inspiring him to buy Sunever Farm. Intent on fulfilling Smith’s vision for a diverse, native food oasis and farm education site, Camargo added his own vision for a grove of 400 olive trees, featuring global varieties, utilizing waterwise mulching and moisture programs.
Camargo’s current focus on the farm is creating massive berms and swales layered with organic matter, to store rainwater and encourage multiple canopy levels. The organic matter in the swales form a bricolage of water pathways and catchments, creating a sustainable model for water-scarce farming and multi-function farm design.
As I listened to Camargo’s real-talk about the medicinal power of olive oil on his cancer journey, I was reminded that farming is as much a visionary project, as it is hard labor. It requires shifting focus to a different set of possibilities; it requires new constellations, new morphologies, unfathomable challenges in exchange for tending and watching plants, noticing bugs and dirt mounds, listening to the air. This makes farmers poets, in a way.
Camargo invites anyone to bring organic yard debris (no Tamarisk, and no creosote, please) to the farm to go into the swales. This doubles as an invitation to share community feelings of farm-pride while improving water retention and the desert soil. Contact Sunever Farm on IG: @suneverfarm to donate organic yard debris.
RA DESERT RANCH
29 Palms, Rashonda Bartney farmer/owner
IG@Zoe_blaq and https://urbansoulfarmer.org
Farmer/owner Rashonda Bartney spoke about water scarcity and planting trees in her desert reforestation project, RA Desert Ranch located on 5 acres of land in 29 Palms, and is named in honor of the sun god of ancient Egypt. “You definitely have to honor the sun in the Mojave Desert,” says Bartney.
Bartney is an interdisciplinary artist, poet, mental health therapist, community arts educator, and master gardener. Her focus is in creating safe, regenerative spaces for marginalized or underserved communities to grow healthy food, innovate design, and form empowering webs of knowledge and agency, through farming. One such project is with a collective called prosperingbackyards.com, focused on healing contaminated soil in South L.A.
At RA Desert Ranch in 29 Palms, Bartney plans to reforest the barren land with native plants and trees. She has hauled in water containers for rainwater catchment, transported truckloads of mulch and compost donated by the LA County Zoo (“It’s my smelly, happy place,” she remarks), wired in a fig tree, and has spread seed balls around the property. For water, she intends to use a combination of solar irrigation, oyas, and gravity irrigation. “This is a system that has been practiced for thousands of years,” she shares. Her transition from Los Angels to the desert brings new challenges: “The wind has been the most challenging for me so far. It ripped my big industrial tent and literally moved the structure to another location.”
As a African-American farmer enacting a desert restoration project, she draws on the “inspiration set forth by agricultural scientist and inventor, George Washington Carver.” Bartney shares. “He utilized seasonal indigenous farming techniques and developed methods to prevent soil depletion… He keeps people like me motivated and hopeful about the future.” Bartney’s focus on tree reforestation as a compassionate and decolonializing act is to be commended, as is the hoodie she wears bearing her concept and logo, “Urban Soul Farmer.”
Her recent farm-based sculpture, “Soil Incarnations,” is on exhibit as part of the Radical Propagations Exhibit 2022 at 18th St Arts Center, in Santa Monica, Ca. (up until July 30, 2022). The piece expresses clarity and intention, history, and the desert. The sculpture includes date palm fronds and golden barrel cacti suspended in a column with other foliage. With all of these cues to soul, soil, decolonization, history, and art, one can only imagine the regenerative forest soon to emerge in 29 Palms.
OASIS OF MARU
Native members of Serrano, Cahuilla, Mohave and Chemehuevi tribes were the original stewards of the land known as the Hi-Desert for thousands of years, continuing to the present. The Serrano tribe, who cultivated food at the Oasis of Mara for 2,500 years (and still exists in 29 Palms), created an “oasis farm,” growing corn, beans, pumpkins and squash from the oasis water. Mara translates to “the place of little springs and much grass.” Notable still today at the Oasis of Mara, are the remains of original deer grass (used for basketry) and a historical group of Mexican Fan Palm trees, botanically grouped with grasses. Today, this oasis waters Faultline Farm, an organic garden plot at the 29 Palms Inn which grows farm-fresh organic vegetables for the 29 Palms Inn Restaurant. But without an oasis, what models for food production with water scarcity do local stewards employ?
Jake Reiland and Olivia Stroud, farmers/owners
It is a pleasure to meet farmers Jake Reiland and Olivia Stroud and to tour their Reiland Homestead in North Joshua Tree. The Reiland Homestead is an utterly quiet patch of 2.5 acres oriented far enough from far-away neighbors to feel truly private without having to be trapped indoor. From where I parked, my first introduction was to a group of tiny pigs who were so adorable that I feared l would spend the entire visit there. Luckily, I was distracted by the recycled materials used in the grey-water system. I walked with Jake over to the thriving young fruit tree recipient of the kitchen’s grey-water. Much of the Reiland Homestead project evolves from the couple’s sheer pleasure of being outside, tending to their plants, trying new garden techniques, and spending time together. Being in the garden with them felt easy, the vibe was not frantic or stressed; they grew their farm proportionally, sustainably, and slow. The tree orchard under current development will include apricot, peach, nectarine, fig, plum, cherry, pear and apple.
Jake and Oliva explained the one key they believe helps arid desert soil – the “no dig” or “no till” method of soil regeneration, a topic that is apparently widely debated. As we hunched over a bed of onion greens, Jake explained: “The main principles of no dig are to disturb the soil structure as little as possible, hence cutting the plants at the base versus pulling up roots. The roots decay and add organic matter and all the organisms living on the roots go on living in the soil ready to benefit the next plants. This method has been proven to trap more carbon in the soil.” Talking dirt with Jake and Olivia again pivots on the necessity of slow growth and small-scale farming as viable models for living in a food insecure region. The couple share agriculture videos of their progress at reilandfarm.youtube.com
SELAH GREEN HOMESTEAD
Master gardener, Selah Green, established a well over 14 years ago on the homestead property she shares with her family, livestock, poultry and other animal creatures. But her methods for desert agriculture and foresting also deploy underground greywater channels, drip irrigation, and “age old farming techniques” which include layering manure and straw atop previous garden beds to upcycle and preserve soil nutrients and moisture. Garden beds folded into industrial-sized steel tubs, likely found abandoned in the barren desert and repurposed, are pest-proof from the bottom, and are covered in a poultry netting at the top to deter birds.
The Selah Green Homestead feels rowdy and elegant all at once, where hardy cacti propagate amidst Mesquite trees, eucalyptus, citrus, pomegranate, fig, shrubs and more. There’s a grove of bamboo situated as a windbreak. There are desert-style mulch beds for chard, kale, tomatoes, mint, rosemary, peppers, garlic. As Green gives me a garden tour, I am astounded by the size of her agave! The abundant Eucalyptus and Mesquite trees are all grown from single seeds by Green herself! The biodiversity of such a small patch of land is evidence enough that a farmer’s persistence and curiosity pays off. As we round a bend towards a fig tree, Green recalls the life of the tree, its good years, and challenges, laying out a narrative of plant resilience and farmer patience. She details the differences in size and vitality of two trees planted at the same time in different areas of the farm.
Her greenhouse roof is made from thatched palm fronds. The small space is perfectly over-flowing with brightly blooming cacti and other plants in states of transition. “I have a problem,” Green laughs out loud as we enter another nursery area of young trees and a vine. Each zone we walk through brings awe, laughter, and storytelling: the apple tree, much larger than the citrus; the compost heaps full of wriggler worms; the precious “worm tea.” We travel from compost heap to compost heap, as the organic matter is organized and piled.
Whether growing agriculture, tending livestock, strategizing water conservation, preserving seeds, or building up soil, these local small-scale farming stewards in the Hi-Desert are a stubborn and passionate bunch. The arid, dramatic, challenging desert eco-system is what they cherish, and they cultivate all of it.